The Europe That Was

Fallout from the French referendum

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe the reaction to the rejection of the EU constitution by France was mixed. Euroskeptics on both sides of the political divide celebrated the news. The political elite, on the other hand, were more grave and tried to put a brave face on it all. For the vast majority, however, people just simply shrugged their shoulders and went on with their everyday lives.

For the political elites of Central and Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, the regular citizens who are actively supportive of the EU, the result of the French referendum was taken as a personal rebuff. Most were now concerned not of the legal implications, but of financial considerations. Indeed, for most new member states the constitution itself isn't that important. What the French vote did was raise fears in Central and Eastern Europe that they now won't be getting as much money from Brussels as before.

Without a doubt, such a prospect would have a devastating impact on many of the governments in the region. Their main selling point of EU membership was primarily economic; in other words, how much money they were going to get from Brussels and how this money would help to alleviate present problems and contribute to the modernising of their societies, namely in terms of infrastructure development. Not surprisingly, in most cases these promises have yet to be fulfilled.

Apart from economic considerations, a rejection of the EU constitution has been viewed by some regional pundits as a belated vote on EU expansion. This not only carries with it a certain psychological effect for the new member states who had joined barely a year before, but also raises uncertainty for the future of those waiting in the wings. Not only are governments in Bucharest and Sofia concerned about how their accession to the EU will be impacted by a rejection of the EU constitution, but in Istanbul the prospect of EU membership has now become that much dimmer.

Although the political elites throughout the EU are busy at trying to contain the damage, the fact of the matter is that what is going on now in terms of structural change far precluded the referendum on the EU constitution. Economically, the EU is in shambles and is at a loss of how to get itself out of a hole it had dug itself in five years ago with the formulation of the Lisbon Agenda. Then, just prior to the tech wreck which devastated the global economy, EU leaders were brimming with confidence that the good old days of the "digital revolution" would last for at least a decade or so. Within two years this dream turned into a nightmare, and unable to simply admit a mistake and throw the whole Lisbon Agenda into the dustbin of history, the European Commission has been laden with this mistake like an albatross wrapped around its neck.

As a result, some of the cherished ideals of the Lisbon Agenda – such as the Growth and Stability Pact -- has been whittled away in order to confront the harsh realities of the post dot-com period. In addition to this, some of the largest financial contributors to the EU, namely Germany, which also happens to be the most adversely affected by the present economic climate, have been looking for ways to share the burden of EU membership more equitably. The outcome of the French referendum, therefore, may actually act as a catalyst in furthering a process which had begun months -- even years -- before.

It is this prospect of now changing the conceptual framework behind the EU which has worried most new member states, as well as those waiting in the wings. This is because whatever changes may come about, they will somehow be on the short end of the stick. Like elsewhere in Europe, governments in Central and Eastern Europe find themselves in a precarious position. The exceptions to this rule are the few who have actually benefited from EU expansion, such as Slovenia and the Baltic states. However, their progress wasn't due to EU membership. Indeed, for the Baltic states the importance of EU membership has always been as a security guarantee against a resurgent Russia and not simply as a means for economic prosperity.

Yet for those whose progress depend primarily on EU membership – such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary -- the events now unfolding within the corridors of power in Brussels will undoubtedly have the greatest impact. It is unlikely that the EU will fall apart because of the failure to ratify the constitution, as most euroskeptics would hope. On the other hand, the new Europe which will arise as a result will be significantly different from the Europe that was, much to the regret of those who for so long have been waiting to be a part of it. (John Horvath)